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Prime Prospects: College grads enter workforce in growing economic times

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lonergan, Jennifer Wheaton Student

Wheaton College senior Jennifer Lonergan’s acceptance into the Japan Exchange Teaching program was a watershed moment for her. “When I got the news I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I teared up a little. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I got my dream job.’ I’m so incredibly lucky.”

It’s spring.

The long hard winter is over. Flowers are blooming, trees are leafing, grass is greening.

The world is new.

And for college seniors, four years of hard work is over and their worlds are about to become new, too.

Graduation ceremonies, a lot of graduation ceremonies, are taking place across the land.

This year about 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees will be awarded, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Wheaton College is expecting to award about 370 of those on May 19 at its 183rd commencement ceremony.

If the sun shines, the ceremony will take place in the unique, tree-shaded hollow on upper campus, known as “The Dimple.”

Hundreds of family members and friends will look on.

Stairs leading up to the stage lead out of college life.

Stairs leading down from the stage lead into adulthood and a new world.

Most of those graduates, 88 percent or so this year, plan on entering the employment part of that world. The rest are heading to graduate school.

It’s a big change for those heading for full-time jobs.

For the first time, pre-set, rigorous academic tasks that have been part of the graduates’ young lives since preschool will be replaced.

For the last four years, they’ve been paying to work. From here on, they’ll be working for pay.

So in the simplest of terms, that means most of the 1.9 million grads are in competition for jobs. But it’s not a bad time for that.

For one thing, around 4 million members of the baby boomer generation are expected to retire over the coming year. Retirements create spaces, people move up and over and all around.

And the economy is good, so good that those who study job prospects for graduating college students are, to use the vernacular, “blown away.” It’s not just a good time to graduate, it’s a great time.

Here’s what the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University said in the 47th edition of its “Recruiting Trends,” published in February.

“Wow! The word ‘wow’ probably does not do justice to this year’s developments in the college labor market, but wow,” said the unnamed author. “Employers are again reporting strong growth in job opportunities for new college graduates at all degree levels.

“This year extends eight years of continuous growth, surpassing the stretch between 1996 and 2000 and any other period during the 47 years this report has been produced.”

Here are the reasons.

“Spurred by business growth, employee turnover and retirements, job opportunities will expand by 19 percent across all degree levels…,” the author said. “Bachelor degree opportunities will contribute 17 percent to growth.”

That pretty much says it all, but if doubt remains, describes job prospects as “white hot.”

Narrowing it down regionally, the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston published the “New England Economic Update” on March 6.

Its author, Bo Zhao, reported job markets are “tight.”

And tight is good, very good. It means that there are more jobs than workers.

And locally, Professor Nora Ganim Barnes, who directs the Center for Marketing Research at UMass-Dartmouth and works with many businesses in Massachusetts, especially in the South Coast region, is very optimistic.

Employment prospects here have not been this good for some time, she told The Sun Chronicle.

“They will find opportunity,” Barnes said of the senior class members who are busy taking final exams and getting fitted for caps and gowns. “The job market is probably the best it’s been in a decade.

“It was very difficult five years ago, better last year, but even better than that now. There is a good deal of hiring going on. Businesses are healthy and growing in Massachusetts.”

Job opportunities are “wide ranging,” she said.

“The health care industry will continue to look for both practitioners like physician assistants, certified nursing assistants for home health care, but also managers. Health care management (MBAs, certificate programs) will be in demand,” she said. “We will also see jobs in communications, social media, marketing, data analytics and for lawyers specializing in intellectual property and internet privacy.”

Barnes said employers want people who can solve problems and people who can do research and have high-tech skills.

“Research skills, data analytics, programming, using software like Qualtrics, SPSS are important,” she said.

Despite all those positive prognostications, some observers aren’t so sure.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers spotted one of the few dark clouds on the horizon. The Pennsylvania-based organization is predicting a 1.3 percent drop in hiring of college graduates from last year.

But even that news isn’t all bad.

First of all, hiring goes on. And secondly, the NACE report issued late in April said the prediction of lower than expected hiring was driven by just two industries.

Insurance companies plan to decrease hiring by a whopping 42 percent because of big payouts caused by a tsunami of natural disasters last year.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers, an industry in transition (look at the withering malls, for example), are being hit hard by online sales and plan to reduce hiring by 33 percent.

So, all in all, when those graduates make that walk across the stage, sun shining or not, their immediate future looks bright.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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